Since the end of the last decade, James Blood Ulmer has been involved in a conscious investigation of the blues as a force for reinvention. On various labels and with a varying group of musicians, Blood has fused, melded, and strained the genre through everything from funk to psychedelic rock and jazz with mixed but always provocative results. Guitarist and producer Vernon Reid has been a constant on Ulmer's last two offerings: 2001's Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions and 2003's No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Ladyland Sessions. The quest continues on Birthright, and in some senses the stakes are even higher because this is a completely solo recording. Reid produces but doesn't perform. Ulmer is the only musician on the entire record. He plays guitars and flute, and he sings. Stripped to the bone, swampy, spooky, and sexy, Birthright is alternately jagged and flowing; it goes into the heart of the blues as Blood experiences it. Ten of the 12 tunes here are originals, either written in or transformed for the idiom. The set opens with "Take Me Back to the Church," and the familiar, dark, haunting harmolodic drone ushers in an entirely new take on the Delta pedigree. Going into the heart of music's origins -- the church -- he splits it wide open. He utterly revises "Where Did All the Girls Come From," a track originally performed on Free Lancing. His staccato multi-string lead playing offers chunky, riff-like figures as the vocals dig into the spaces between them. The rhythmic intensity is hypnotic. This doesn't mean he can't play it straight, as the strolling "I Can't Take It Anymore" attests. It uses the I-IV-V progression throughout, with embellishments only as one line bleeds into the next. On Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious," he brings the eerie, haunting atmosphere back into the tune. No rave-up workout, Blood's relaxed delivery allows his snaky, warm guitar to weave its spell on the listener as his voice hovers just outside the beat, zeroing in on the complex paradox at the heart of the song's lyric. Following a few tracks in, "The Evil One" is the Dixon song's twin, with its foreboding message, footboard rhythmic attack, and low-string dronescape. The folk song storytelling blues of "Geechee Joe" evokes the spirit of Leadbelly with its meandering, poignant tale. In Blood's hands, "Sittin' on Top of the World" isn't so much a raucous party tune that celebrates the disappearance of a lover; it's a slow, labyrinthine tune of acceptance and discovery. The guitar acts as the singer's foil, pushing forward, pulling back, and ultimately underscoring the truth as it is revealed in the grain of the protagonist's voice. Birthright is the album Ulmer should have made years ago. All that matters is that listeners have it now. It's a shining star in his catalog and a chillingly intimate portrait of his expansive vision and singular talent.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek